Can You Really Grow Plants On Mars?

In the blockbuster movie The Martian (which is based on an Andy Weir novel of the same name), astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stuck on Mars with no means of coming up with food. But since Watney is a botanist, he manages to grow potatoes using Martian soil and seemingly basic scientific knowledge. By doing so, he manages to cultivate a supply of food that’ll last him until his rescue.

Traditional gardening principles, however, state that it’s impossible to grow plants on Mars. Given the planet’s seemingly barren, lifeless landscape, it’s easy to believe so. Plants require oxygen and nutritious soil — things not readily present on Mars. Companies like Green State Gardener, among others, can vouch for this. Maybe it’s time to fact-check the movie and the novel’s assumptions.

Plants On Mars? Perhaps

The short answer is yes, one can grow plants on Mars — probably. Novelist Andy Weir notes in his research, however, that Martian soil requires some sort of help for it to sustain plant life. Several of the nutrients that plants need to grow are non-existent on Martian soil. Protagonist Mark Watney addresses this by using human feces to supplement the soil, which technically works in theory. It’s obviously well-known that biological waste is used as fertilizer.

Or perhaps Weir’s research is somehow outdated. According to scientists at NASA, Martian soil does have the nutrients plants need to survive. The problem is that the concentration is not as good. It’s why Martian soil needs copious amounts of fertilizer. Another issue is the presence of perchlorates, substances which can either kill the plants or make them toxic. Fortunately, this is solved by simply washing the soil, which gets rid of the perchlorates.

Soil that’s somehow similar in composition to that of Mars’ has been used to grow plants here on Earth, as well. Researchers from Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands managed to grow tomatoes, peas, chives, and even spinach in a Mars-equivalent soil in an experiment. All they had to do was visit the most uninhabitable places on Earth (i.e. a volcano in Hawaii) and take the soil from there. Under a controlled environment that simulates Martian conditions, the crops managed to grow.

As it turns out, Mars may not be as lifeless as it’s thought to be.